The face of Moscow transforms completely at night. With the help of thousands of LED lights, it becomes magically mesmerizing.
With lustrous lights and shimmering skylines, the city takes on an ethereal, almost celestial quality — so different from the grey skies, smoggy pollution, and ever-present traffic of Moscow by day.
Moscow by night is beguiling to a point where it seems surreal, almost like a fairytale. Thousands of LED lights sparkle in the dark, outlining buildings, cathedrals, bridges, main streets, squares, monuments and statues in ever-changing hues ranging from gold, orange red, and pink to violet, blue, and green. With such a nightly display of light and colour kinetics, no need to be afraid of the dark anymore.
The best thing about Moscow's night lights is that it's year round. And for out-of-towners, the best way to experience the magic of Moscow at night is by joining a guided tour. I signed on for an optional tour offered by Viking River Cruises. The three-and-a-half hour escorted tour was a combination of walking through Red Square to hook up with a boat on the Moskva River followed by a bus tour.
We start the evening in Red Square, walking by GUM department store — the largest in Russia. At night GUM lights up with a brilliance equaled only by Christmas lights. Even Disneyland at night has found its competition in the lights of Red Square. Bosco Cafe in the GUM department store is spotlighted — the place to be seen on a terrace seat on Red Square while sipping coffee.
Our guide gives us only 20 minutes to walk around and admire the beauty of Red Square, including the Kremlin and St. Basil's Cathedral — one of the most famous symbols of Moscow and probably the most popular tourist attraction. Located at the northeastern wall of the Kremlin, Red Square has been central to Muscovites since the end of the 15th century. Even today, many parades and celebrations happen here.
St. Basil's Cathedral at night is a fairy tale to behold as the glow of night lights saturate the anarchy of colourful cupolas. It's a chaos of gables, tent roofs and twisting faceted onion domes; a crazy architectural confusion inspired by traditional Russian wood architecture. Ivan the Terrible commissioned the church, built from 1555 to 1561, that would later almost fall prey to Stalin as it hindered plans for mass parades on Red Square. But since the architect Pyotr Baranovsky threatened to cut his own throat if the masterpiece was destroyed, Stalin relented.
We cross Red Square to catch a boat for another perspective of Moscow. We start our cruise by Patriarchy Bridge, where lovers leave padlocks hanging from trees on the bridge (a fad popular with young people throughout Europe).
Next we see the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the tallest Eastern Orthodox Church in the world. Built in 1860 in the Russian-Byzantine style, it honoured Russia's victory over Napoleon's troops. Unfortunately, Stalin destroyed the church and built a swimming pool on the ruins as a way to mock religion in the Soviet regime. The structure was rebuilt by the present Russian government and reopened in the year 2000. At night, the gigantic white church with the golden onion dome stands bathed in illuminating light that almost seems divinely inspired.
We pass by the huge monument to Peter the Great — a 95-metre monument that commemorates the 300th anniversary of the Russian fleet. Created by sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, the bronze monument consists of various ships and a giant statue of Peter the Great. Rumour has it that the statue was initially one of Christopher Columbus and that it was intended for the United States. However, after being rejected, the head was supposedly replaced and sold to the Russian government as a nautical likeness of Peter the Great.
The monument is not well liked by locals, some of it attributed to the incongruous pompousness and gigantic scale of the statue, while other reasons have to do with pivotal reforms Peter the Great introduced, most of them imitating European culture at the expense of Russian tradition.
We marvel at the luminescent landscape on our way back to where our Viking ship the Ingvar is moored, just north of the city. Spellbound from our magical lights tour, I check the night lights of Moscow off my bucket list.
There was a time in Moscow when streets were dark and poorly lit. Increased crime was an obvious byproduct. Alas, the extremely long nights of winter only made things worse, making for a very depressed outlook on life. In 2011, the nights became even longer when daylight savings time was ended for Muscovites, adding up to 18 hours a day in winter dark.
Moscow city authorities came up with a unique strategy to combat winter blues by adding thousands of new LED lights throughout Moscow. According to Pavel Livinsky, head of City Hall's fuel and energy department, which developed the lighting strategy, "Moscow receives seven to eight times less sunlight in winter compared to the summer, and the number of daylight hours goes down by half."
As a result, lighting has been a city priority in recent years and thousands of lights have been installed citywide, transforming a once dreary capital into a sparkling "Disneyland" at night.